Carrie got concerned when her brothers suddenly began to exclude her from their Mom’s financial affairs. It didn’t feel right, but she wasn’t sure she could do anything about it. When she called, I got that “slow burn” feeling that comes over me when I hear about financial elder abuse. As a consultant for folks with aging parents, it’s not the first time I’ve heard this kind of story.
Carrie and her brothers were supposed to all share authority on the Durable Power of Attorney for Mom. Mom and her lawyer had set it up that way, at Mom’s request. It’s nice in theory, this idea of being democratic. It’s just not practical. Unwittingly, the lawyer had put the 3 siblings into a trap. One could say “no” to any decision and none of them could move forward. They didn’t all trust each other and clearly, there was a deliberate attempt to exclude Carrie from the money decisions.
Mom has dementia, Carrie reports. This makes her vulnerable, even if she is functioning fairly well in caring for herself at this time.
Carrie’s brothers are starting down the path of making themselves suspects of the crime of elder abuse. Besides shutting Carrie out of the decisions, they’ve taken her car, and are using her credit cards for personal things. This is a brewing crisis.
Here are 7 warning signs everyone needs to know about if this is happening in your family. These are, by themselves, not necessarily dangerous, but any combination of them should raise suspicion and trigger action from those who worry about abuse.
1. A family member becomes secretive about the parent’s finances
In this case, a long standing pattern of making Mom’s books available to all 3 siblings was altered. Carrie knew what Mom’s regular expenses were and what she spent every month. Mom is 87. When Carrie got excluded from online access to Mom’s accounts, it raised a red flag.
2. A family member lives with the parent and depends on the parent for financial support.
Carrie’s brother Jack lives with Mom. He has a job, but Mom pays all his bills. This has gone on for some time. Now, he’s using Mom’s credit card and he apparently doesn’t want Carrie to see what he’s spending. Sometimes this situation is a recipe for abuse because it’s just too easy to rip off the aging parent, who is vulnerable to manipulation.
3. A family member begins to isolate the aging parent from others.
When there is anyone blocking visits, restricting access of other family members to the elder, it’s another red flag. The potential abuser doesn’t want anyone looking too closely at what is going on and the method to avoid scrutiny is to keep the elder away from the other family members.
4. An adult child insists on being present when anyone else is with the aging parent.
This can be a sign that an adult child is threatening the aging parent if he/she talks about the financial manipulation that the elder knows is going on. If the elder has concerns, the abuser doesn’t want the aging parent to reveal this to anyone and may have frightened the elder into silence.
5. A family member has a substance abuse problem and has influence over an aging parent with memory problems.
Drug and alcohol dependency can make a liar out of just about anyone who has this issue. Memory impaired aging parents are “easy pickings” for money to support the dependency habit. The adult child or other relative uses the relationship with the elder to manipulate “loans” out of the elder and the elder forgets what happened or can’t make sense of it but says yes.
6. Sudden change in estate planning documents, particularly Durable Power of Attorney, Trustee or signatory on a bank or brokerage account. Cognitive impairment begins subtly at first, but the elder is vulnerable to manipulation even in the earliest stages of dementia. When names on legal documents suddenly get added or removed, it is a suspicious sign, particularly if there is no obvious need to make such changes.
7. Kidnapping and moving the elder to an adult child’s home without notice to anyone or discussion with anyone else.
This is a tricky problem. If adult protective services asks the elder if he/she wants to be with the adult child and the elder says “yes” there is nothing APS is going to do at that point. More evidence of elder abuse will be needed to get law enforcement involved. If you are suspicious, start poking into the situation as soon as you see the first red flag. After the elder is removed to another location, you can lose control of efforts to help.
If you suspect abuse, and want to protect your aging parent, contact Adult Protective Services in your area. Collect the specific information that made you suspicious ahead of time. Yes, you must name names, give dates of suspicious activity and provide facts the authorities can check out. It is possible in some states to freeze the elder’s bank accounts pending an investigation. Our financial elder abuse problem in this country costs elders $2.9 billion dollars per year.If family members get past the discomfort and report abuse, it may do something to reduce this crime.
Until next time,
Carolyn Rosenblatt, R.N., Elder Law Attorney
Dr. Mikol Davis, Psychologist